It is said that human beings are meaning making creatures. Overall, what distinguishes us from other sorts of beings is our instinct to understand things and to find meanings in our experiences other than the simple fact of having them. Our minds are organs that seek meaning, generate meaning, and attribute meaning. We need to understand what things mean in order to know how to be in the world.
I remember going to a conference and listening to a speaker talk about doing therapy with couples. He said, “When the wife asks the husband for a cup of coffee and he thinks that means she wants a cup of coffee, I figure I have succeeded.” He explained that in so many relationships, we attribute intentions and meanings to the other person’s behavior, even though we cannot know for sure what is in that person’s mind. So when she asks for coffee, he thinks, “She’s trying to point out how selfish I am that I got a cup of coffee for myself and not for her.” Or, “She is not respecting me in expecting me to wait on her.” Or, “It must be my turn to make the coffee.” The possibilities are infinite.
We do have a multitude of motives and idiosyncratic ways of interpreting the world, so we usually do have a lot of meaning in anything we say or do. The thing is, we are not even sure ourselves about all of them. “Maybe I’m trying to take care of her by bringing the coffee or maybe I’m victimized by always being the caregiver. Maybe I’m secretly angry with her and I don’t want to feel that way so I’m glad to do something for her. Maybe I’m distracted and worried she is going to want me to pay attention to her. Maybe I am responding to her wish to reconnect after I’ve been gone, and I’m glad she is still interested in me.”
Actually, it is all of the above and probably a lot more. This is partly why it is difficult to attribute a motive to someone’s behavior since it is probably multi-determined. And this is why it is difficult to truly understand our own selves in any depth. But it matters. Because to the extent that we can reflectively sort out our own particular system of motives and meanings, we can make conscious choices about what we want to pursue and who we want to be.